April 18, 2024
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Israeli Soldiers and American Students Bond on Birthright

Forty Americans and eight Israelis are sitting on a tour bus. No, this isn’t the start of a joke. It’s the start of Birthright, an experience all 48 participants aren’t likely to forget anytime soon.

Founded in 1999, Birthright is a program that grants American Jewish young adults a free trip and guided tour of Israel. The organization receives funding from different donors, philanthropists and even from the State of Israel. The opportunity to join Birthright is open to Israeli soldiers as well; they can apply and be recommended by their commanders to join the trip. This past December of 2016, one Birthright trip organizer, Mayanot, brought the experience of Israel to both American Jews and Israeli soldiers and gave each group the opportunity to learn more about each other and their cultures.

Having Israeli soldiers was not initially part of the Birthright experience, but tour organizers found that a critical part of Israel for young adults is the opportunity to meet their peers, explained Renee Halpert, the tour guide on Mayanot’s most recent winter trip. “You get to meet people in your own age group and see what their lives are like,” she said. “That’s probably one of the strongest impacts on the groups at any given time.” The tour guide noticed how both the Israelis and Americans on the trip spoke honestly with each other and made an effort to discover what they had in common and what was different about the backgrounds. “It helps bridge a gap between the Diaspora Jewry and the Israeli Jewry,” Halpert said. Even though both countries celebrate or understand Judaism differently, ultimately both groups are able to connect over their religion and are able to learn from each other.

“I kind of assumed that there would be very little difference between the experiences of Jews living in Israel and Jews living abroad,” Julia S., an American participant on the trip, said. She talked to some of the soldiers about how Judaism is integrated into Israeli culture. “It’s a different national consciousness,” she said.

The soldiers also found it interesting to hear from their American counterparts about being a religious minority. They felt that they had more in common with the American peers than they had first thought. “I really was surprised at how many things we have in common,” said Guy G., an intelligence officer in the Israeli army. “We are basically the same people, only we speak two different languages.”

The language barrier was only a small obstacle to overcome and did not stop anyone on the trip from getting to know each other. For the Israelis, it was a challenge they were eager to take on. Intelligence commander Omry S. served in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during the summer of 2014. He acknowledged that his experience serving impacted his attitude toward other challenges in his life. “Things will stick with me forever,” he said. “I am a completely different person.” Had he been offered the chance to join a Birthright trip he would not have taken the opportunity. He was too timid about his English, but being in the army gave him the kind of courage to deal with the challenge of speaking a different language; while that may not be the same as serving in combat, it took a lot of nerve to speak with others in a language he wasn’t so confident in.

One soldier, Erica C., had the ability to speak both languages fluently. Originally from West Orange, her family moved to Israel when she was 10 years old. She recalled the difficulty she had adjusting to a different world and joining the army, but the sense of belonging she eventually grew to feel in Israel. “I’m very split. I’ve always been split,” she said of both her Israeli and American identity. She felt on the same level talking to her American peers, unlike some of the other soldiers who felt more comfortable talking to each other. However, even though she spent the second half of her life in Israel, it was the country she felt most connected to. “I think I relate more to Americans on a superficial level, but on a deeper level I relate more to Israelis,” Erica said. She explained that her duties in the army are experiences she only shared with her Israeli peers. “It’s just because of what we do here, what we’ve all done here.”

What these young soldiers have done is admirable and courageous to say the least. Though those like Guy and Erica could not tell of their experiences working in the intelligence unit, they were happy to share other aspects of their lives spent serving. With her training in the special forces unit, Erica also works for the search and rescue team that responds to emergencies happening in Israel and all over the world. Her search and rescue unit were responders in a bombing in Istanbul earlier. Two Israelis were killed in the attack, and her fellow unit members flew to Turkey to retrieve the bodies.

Erica has learned a lot from her experiences serving, a lot about her country and a lot about herself. “I’ve learned that speaking up is very important. If you don’t speak up nothing will happen,” she said. “That goes for everything—even just coming here to [birthright] and talking about my experiences, that’s really important.” She’s learned how to talk in front of her superiors in Hebrew, and she’s learned how to push people to their limit—something she never thought she would have to do. Most importantly, however, she has grown to understand the purpose of her service. “We’re here to help others,” she said. “It’s not two years for me, it’s two years for my country.”

Even though the soldiers were surprised to find everything they had in common with their American counterparts, American birthright participant Jonotan M. acknowledged that their lives were also very different. “They definitely have a lot more responsibilities than we do,” he said. “They have the whole geopolitical weight upon their shoulders, while we have a lot of freedom to do whatever we want.” College students in America do graduate with certain skill sets, Jonatan explained, but his Israeli peers emerge from the army with a certain grit and a certain perspective on the world that he and his American peers are still searching for. “By the time they’re done with [their service] they’re mountains and mountains more mature than we are,” he said.

In America, our attitude toward military service is different in general as well, Jonotan explained. Part of what led to the end of the draft after Vietnam was the fact that mothers of these children who were pulled into war questioned the motivations of their government. “Their mindset was that people in Congress never had to pull anything forward; they just played with other people’s lives,” he said. The perspective on the military is different in America than in Israel. “We don’t have war on our forefronts,” said Jonotan. Not the same way Israel is constantly on the defense. Living in a country that requires a draft, that puts their military as their political priority, changes the attitudes of the citizens. “Here people are proud to serve,” he said.

The soldiers understand the responsibility of serving their country. “It is my duty,” Omry said simply. He spoke with the pride of a patriot. When he was younger there were other soldiers defending him and keeping him safe, he explained, and it soon became his turn to protect his country.

Birthright was a fascinating trip, and both the Americans and the soldiers were affected differently by the experience. “I think what the American participants tend to see is how the Israelis have responsibilities from a very young age, and I think that’s acknowledged,” Halpert said. “For the Israelis, there’s also an incredible impact because they don’t realize that a Jew who lives in a small community, where Jews are the minority and the person may or may not have much of a Jewish life, can still connect to the State of Israel.”

By Elizabeth Zakaim

Elizabeth Zakaim, from Paramus, is a sophomore at The College of New Jersey and is looking to major in journalism. She can be reached at [email protected].

 

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